The onset of a new year offers the opportunity for reflection. As we move into 2017, evidence continues to demonstrate online education is indeed becoming part of the fabric of both academic and professional life, putting pressure on educational institutions to continually revisit the design, development and delivery structures of their academic programs. The line between the traditional college experience and the post-traditional college experience continues to blur, as more and more students seek alternative ways of learning.
This growth and continued evolution of digital learning in multiple variations has led to the need for new leadership at all levels of the institution. These leaders require a combination of business savvy, academic mindfulness, and financial aptitude as well as change management skills and capabilities. Many of these future leaders are currently positioned within their institutions in introductory or mid-level management roles. Others may already be positioned in senior leadership roles but without practical experience within the realm of leading within the digital education space.
Ironically, our institutions educate and develop our nation’s future leaders; yet, they do not undertake the same rigor within their own administrative staff. Research shows succession planning is lacking within our colleges and universities. Professional development pertaining to the acquisition of skills to lead in a rapidly shifting landscape of social, pedagogical, technological, administrative, and financial changes proves non-existent.
As with any emerging field, many of the pioneering leaders in post-secondary online learning moved into their roles through various career paths, disciplines, and experiences and included librarians, faculty and instructors, technologist, instructional designers, researchers, and administrators. They learned from experience and without formal training. Now, many first-generation leaders are nearing retirement or are being called to broader leadership roles within their institutions. As our field matures, institutions can no longer rely on ‘learning by doing’. Instead, they must actively and intentionally identify and prepare the subsequent generation of leaders and provide them with relevant professional development experiences.
It is a risky situation, but not an impossible one to overcome. First, effective and actionable performance management programs need to be integrated within all levels of the institution. By rigorously monitoring the progress of these programs, potential leaders will emerge from the ranks. Secondly, this effort needs to be supported by learning and development initiatives. One such initiative includes the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Education (IELOL), a partnership of the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and Penn State University. Acknowledging the talent crisis in online leadership, the two entities launched IELOL in 2009 and have graduated over 300 future leaders who are visibly making a difference within the evolving institutional environment that includes increasingly complex networks, data security, technology-enabled devices, advances in cognitive science, data-driven decision-making, and changing financial and political pressures.
The needs of the pioneer leaders of online learning, or the first and second generation of leaders, and those of individuals entering the field in the current climate, the third and fourth generation of leaders, are significantly different due to the speed at which online learning is advancing. The current generations of emerging leaders require the consideration of a different and broader set of competencies than their predecessors. One of the keys to success lies in fostering the continual development of the skills and capabilities necessary to guide, direct, and navigate the institution through a rapidly emerging higher education environment. By making this practice an organizational imperative, institutions will establish a solid foundation for future growth and change.